NBC was available in an estimated 97 percent of U.S. households in 2003, reaching 103 million viewers. NBC has 10 owned-and-operated stations and nearly 200 affiliates in the United States and its territories.
WEAF acted as a laboratory for AT&T's manufacturing and supply outlet Western Electric, whose products included transmitters and antennas. The Bell System, AT&T's telephone utility, was developing technologies to transmit voice- and music-grade audio over short and long distances, using both wireless and wired methods. The 1922 creation of WEAF offered a research-and-development center for those activities. WEAF had a regular schedule of radio programs, including some of the first commercially sponsored programs, and was an immediate success. In an early example of chain or networking broadcasting, the station linked with the Outlet Company's WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island; and with AT&T's station in Washington, D.C., WCAP.
New parent RCA saw an advantage in sharing programming, and after getting a license for station WRC in Washington, D.C., in 1923, attempted to transmit audio between cities via low-quality telegraph lines. AT&T refused outside companies access to its high-quality phone lines. The early effort fared poorly, since the uninsulated telegraph lines were susceptible to atmospheric and other electrical interference.
In 1925, AT&T decided WEAF and its embryonic network were incompatible with AT&T's primary goal of providing a telephone service. AT&T offered to sell the station to RCA in a deal that included the right to lease AT&T's phone lines for network transmission.
Red & Blue Networks
RCA spent $1 million to buy WEAF and Washington sister station WCAP, shut down the latter station, and announced in late 1926 the creation of a new division known as The National Broadcasting Company. The new division was divided in ownership between RCA (fifty percent), General Electric (thirty percent), and Westinghouse (twenty percent). NBC launched officially on November 15, 1926.
WEAF and WJZ, the flagships of the two earlier networks, operated side-by-side for about a year as part of the new NBC. On January 1, 1927 NBC formally divided their respective marketing strategies: the Red Network offered commercially sponsored entertainment and music programming; the Blue Network carried sustaining or non-sponsored broadcasts, especially news and cultural programs. Various histories of NBC suggest the color designations for the two networks came from the color of the push pins NBC engineers used to designate affiliates of WEAF (red) and WJZ (blue), or from the use of double-ended red and blue colored pencils. A similar two-part/two-color strategy appeared in the recording industry, dividing the market between classical and popular offerings.
Orange, Gold & White Networks
On April 5, 1927, NBC reached the West Coast with the launch of the NBC Orange Network, also known as The Pacific Coast Network. This was followed by the debut on October 18, 1931, of the NBC Gold Network, also known as The Pacific Gold Network. The Orange Network carried Red Network programming and the Gold Network carried programming from the Blue Network. Initially the Orange Network recreated Eastern Red Network programming for West Coast stations at KPO in San Francisco, California. In 1936 the Orange Network name was dropped and affiliate stations became part of the Red Network. At the same time the Gold Network became part of the Blue Network. NBC also developed a network for shortwave radio stations in the 1930s called the NBC White Network.
The famous three-note NBC chimes came about after several years of development. The three note sequence G-E-C may have been heard first over Atlanta's WSB. Someone at NBC in New York heard the WSB version of the notes during the networked broadcast of a Georgia Tech football game and asked permission to use it on the national network. NBC started to use the three notes in 1931, and it was the first audio trademark to be accepted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A variant sequence was also used that went G-E-C-G, known as "the fourth chime" and used during wartime (especially in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor), on D-Day, and disasters. The NBC chimes were mechanized in 1932 by Richard H. Ranger of the Rangertone company; their purpose was to send a low level signal of constant amplitude that would be heard by the various switching stations manned by NBC and AT&T engineers, and thus used as a system cue for switching different stations between the Red and Blue network feeds. Contrary to popular legend, the three musical notes, G-E-C, did not originally stand for NBC's current parent corporation, the General Electric Company; although GE's radio station in Schenectady, New York, WGY, was an early NBC affiliate, and GE was an early shareholder in NBC's founding parent RCA. General Electric did not own NBC outright until 1986. G-E-C is still used on NBC-TV. A variant with two preceding notes is used on the MSNBC cable television network. NBC's radio branch no longer exists.
New beginnings: The Blue Network becomes ABC
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had since its creation 1934 studied the monopolistic effects of network broadcasting. The FCC found that NBC's two networks and its owned-and-operated stations dominated audiences, affiliates and advertising in American radio. In 1939 the FCC ordered RCA to divest itself of one of the two networks. RCA fought the divestiture order, but in 1940 divided NBC into two companies in case an appeal was lost. The Blue Network became NBC Blue Network, Inc. (now ABC), and NBC Red became NBC Red Network, Inc. In January 1942, the two networks formally divorced operations, and the Blue Network was referred to on the air as either Blue or Blue Network, with official corporate name Blue Network Company, Inc. NBC Red, on the air, became known simply as NBC.
After losing its final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1943, RCA sold Blue Network Company, Inc., for $8 million to Life Savers magnate Edward J. Noble, completing the sale in October 1943. Noble got the network name, leases on land-lines and the New York studios; two-and-a half stations (WJZ in Newark/New York; KGO in San Francisco, and WENR in Chicago, which shared a frequency with Prairie Farmer station WLS); and about 60 affiliates. Noble wanted a better name for the network and in 1944 acquired the rights to the name American Broadcasting Company from George Storer. The Blue Network became ABC officially on June 15, 1945, after the sale was completed.
In the golden days of network broadcasting, 1930 to 1950, NBC was at the pinnacle of American radio. NBC broadcast radio's earliest mass hit, Amos 'n' Andy, beginning in 1926-27 in its original fifteen-minute serial format. The show set a standard for nearly all serialized programming in the original radio era, both comedies and soap operas. The appeal of the two struggling title characters landed a broad audience, especially during the Great Depression.
In the late 1940s, rival Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) gained ground by allowing radio stars to use their own production companies, which was a tax break. In early radio years, stars and programs commonly hopped between networks when their short-term contracts expired. In 1948-49, beginning with the nation's top radio star, Jack Benny, many NBC performers jumped to CBS.
In addition, NBC stars began moving toward television, including comedian Milton Berle, whose Texaco Star Theater on NBC became television's first major hit. Conductor Arturo Toscanini made ten television appearances on NBC between 1948 and 1952.
Aiming to keep classic radio alive as television matured, and to challenge CBS's Sunday night radio lineup, much of which had jumped from NBC with Jack Benny, NBC launched The Big Show in November 1950. This 90-minute variety show updated radio's earliest musical variety style with sophisticated comedy and dramatic presentations. Featuring stage legend Tallulah Bankhead as hostess, it lured prestigious entertainers, including Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Lauritz Melchior, Ethel Barrymore, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Ella Fitzgerald. But The Big Show's initial success didn't last despite critical praise. The show endured two years, with NBC losing perhaps a million dollars on the project.
NBC's last major radio programming push, in 1955, was Monitor, a continuous all-weekend mixture of music, news, interviews and features, with a variety of hosts including well-known television personalities Dave Garroway, Hugh Downs, Ed McMahon, Joe Garagiola and Gene Rayburn. The potpourri show tried to keep vintage radio alive by featuring segments from Jim and Marian Jordan (in character as Fibber McGee and Molly); Peg Lynch's dialog comedy Ethel and Albert (with Alan Bunce); and iconoclastic satirist Henry Morgan. Monitor was a success for a number of years, but after the mid-1960s, local stations, especially in larger markets, were reluctant to break from their established formats to run non-conforming network programming. After Monitor went off the air in early 1975, little remained of NBC network radio beyond hourly newscasts and news features.
The last years of NBC Radio
Later in 1975, NBC launched the NBC News and Information Service, which provided up to 55 minutes of news per hour around the clock to local stations that wanted to adopt an all-news format. The service attracted several dozen subscribers, but not enough for NBC to expect profitability, and NBC discontinued it after two years. Near the end of the 1970s, NBC started The Source, a modestly successful secondary network providing news and short features to FM rock stations.
GE acquired NBC in 1986, and it decided that radio did not fit its strategy. In the summer of 1987, GE sold NBC Radio's network operations to Westwood One, and sold off the NBC-owned stations to different buyers. In 1989 the NBC Radio Network as an independent programming service ceased to exist, becoming a brand name for content produced by Westwood One, and ultimately by CBS Radio. The Mutual Broadcasting System, which Westwood One had acquired two years earlier, met the same fate, and essentially merged with NBC Radio.
By the late 1990s, Westwood One was producing NBC-branded newscasts on weekday mornings only. About 2003 these were discontinued, and the remaining NBC Radio Network affiliates began to receive CNN Radio-branded newscasts around the clock. Westwood One also distributed a new service called NBC News Radio, brief news updates read by television anchors and reporters from NBC News and MSNBC.
For many years NBC was closely identified with David Sarnoff, who used it as a vehicle to sell consumer electronics. It was Sarnoff who ruthlessly stole innovative ideas from competitors, using RCA's muscle to prevail in the courts. RCA and Sarnoff had dictated the broadcasting standards put in place by the FCC in 1938, and stole the spotlight by introducing all-electronic television to the public at the 1939–40 New York World's Fair, simultaneously initiating a regular schedule of programs on the NBC-RCA television station in New York City. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared at the fair, before the NBC cameras, becoming the first U.S. president to appear on television on April 30, 1939. The David Sarnoff Library has available an actual, off-the-monitor photograph of the FDR telecast. The broadcast was transmitted by NBC's New York television station W2XBSChannel 1 (now WNBC-TV channel 4) and was seen by about 1,000 viewers within the station's roughly Template:Convert coverage area from their Empire State Building transmitter location. The next day, May 1, four models of RCA television sets went on sale to the general public in various New York City department stores, promoted in a series of splashy newspaper ads. It is to be noted that DuMont (and others) actually offered the first home sets in 1938 in anticipation of NBC's announced April 1939 start-up. Later in 1939, NBC took its cameras to professional football and baseball games in the New York City area, establishing many "firsts" in the history of television. Actual NBC "network" broadcasts (more than one station) began about this time with occasional special events — such as the British King and Queen's visit to the New York World's Fair — being seen in Philadelphia (over the station which would become WPTZ, now KYW) and in Schenectady (over the station which would become WRGB), two pioneer stations in their own right. The most ambitious NBC television "network" program of this pre-war era was the telecasting of the Republican National Convention in 1940 from Philadelphia, which was fed live to New York and Schenectady. However, despite major promotion by RCA, television set sales in New York in the 1939-1940 period were disappointing, primarily due to the high cost of the sets, and the lack of compelling regular programming. Most sets were sold to bars, hotels and other public places, where the general public viewed special sporting and news events.
NBC's experimental New York City station was licensed for commercial telecasts beginning on July 11941, adopting the call letters WNBT (it is now WNBC-TV). The first official commercial on that day was for Bulova Watches, seen just before the start of a Brooklyn Dodgers telecast. Limited programming continued until the U.S. entered World War II. Telecasts were curtailed in the early years of the war, then expanded as NBC began to prepare for full service upon the war's end. On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, WNBT broadcast hours of news coverage, and remotes from around New York City. This event was pre-promoted by NBC with a direct-mail card sent to television set owners in the New York area. At one point, a WNBT camera placed atop the marquee of the Hotel Astor panned the crowd below celebrating the end of the war in Europe. The vivid coverage was a prelude to television's rapid growth after the war ended. The NBC television network grew from its initial post-war lineup of four stations. The 1947 World Series featured two New York teams (Yankees and Dodgers), and local TV sales boomed, since the games were telecast in New York. More stations along the East Coast and in the Midwest were connected by coaxial cable through the late 1940s, and in September 1951 the first transcontinental telecasts took place.
The early 1950s brought success for NBC in the new medium. Television's first big star, Milton Berle, drew large audiences to NBC with his antics on the The Texaco Star Theater. The network launched Today and The Tonight Show, which would bookend the broadcast day for over fifty years, and which still lead their competitors.
While rivals CBS and DuMont also offered color broadcasting plans, RCA convinced a waffling FCC to approve its color system in December 1953. NBC was ready with color programming within days of the FCC's decision. NBC began with some shows in 1954, and that summer broadcast its first program to air all episodes in color, The Marriage. In 1956 during a National Association meeting in Chicago, NBC announced that its Chicago TV station WNBQ (now WMAQ-TV) was the first color TV station in the nation (at least six hours of color broadcasts a day). The 1962 Rose Bowl was the first color television broadcast of a college football game. By 1963, most of NBC's prime time schedule was in color. Without television sets to sell, rival networks followed more slowly, finally committing to color in the 1965-66 season. Days of our Lives was the first soap opera to premiere in color.
In 1974 under new president Herb Schlosser, the network tried to go after younger viewers with a series of costly movies, miniseries and specials. This failed to attract the desirable 18-34 demographic, and alienated older viewers. NBC did launch the successful and influential Saturday Night Live, in a time slot previously held by reruns of The Tonight Show. In 1978 Schlosser was promoted to executive vice presidency at RCA, and a desperate NBC lured Fred Silverman away from number-one ABC to turn the network's fortunes around. With the notable exceptions of Diff'rent Strokes, Real People, The Facts of Life, and the mini-series Shogun, he couldn't find a hit. Failures accumulated rapidly under his watch (such as Hello, Larry, Supertrain, Pink Lady and Jeff, and The Waverly Wonders). Ironically many of them were beaten in the ratings by shows Silverman had greenlighted at CBS and ABC.
Also during this time, NBC suffered the defections of several longtime affiliates in markets such as: Atlanta (WSB), Baltimore (WBAL), Charlotte (WSOC), Dayton (WDTN), Indianapolis (WRTV), Jacksonville (WTLV), Minneapolis-St. Paul (KSTP-TV), and San Diego (KGTV). Most were wooed away by ABC, which was the number-one network during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In markets such as San Diego and Jacksonville, NBC was forced to replace the lost stations with new affiliates broadcasting on the UHF band.
When U.S. President Jimmy Carter pulled the American team out of the 1980 Summer Olympics, NBC canceled a planned 150 hours of coverage (which had cost $87,000,000), and the network's future was in doubt. It had been counting on $170,000,000 in advertising revenues and on the broadcasts to help promote fall shows.
The press was merciless towards Silverman, but two of the most savage attacks on his leadership came from within. The company that composed NBC's on-air promo music created a spoof of the Proud as a Peacock ad campaign. Comedian Al Franken satirized Silverman in a Saturday Night Live sketch titled "Limo for a Lame-O". Silverman admitted he "never liked Al Franken to begin with", and the sketch may have hurt Franken's chance of succeeding Lorne Michaels as executive producer of SNL.
In the summer of 1981, Fred Silverman resigned. Grant Tinker became president of the network and Brandon Tartikoff became chief of programming. Tartikoff inherited a schedule full of aging dramas and very few sitcoms, but showed patience with promising programs. One such show was the critically acclaimed Hill Street Blues, which rated poorly in its first season. Instead of canceling it, he moved the Emmy-winning police drama to Thursday night where its ratings improved dramatically. He used the same tactic with St. Elsewhere. Shows like these were able to get the same ad revenue as their higher-rated, mass-audience competition because of their desirable demographics, upscale, 18-34 year-old viewers. While the network claimed moderate successes with Gimme a Break!, Silver Spoons, Knight Rider and Remington Steele, its biggest hit in this period was The A-Team, which, at tenth place, was the network's only top-20 rated show of the 1982-1983 season. These shows helped NBC through the disastrous 1983-84 season, in which none of its new shows gained a second year. It was the only time that a network's entire line of new series had failed to be renewed since the network's 1975 lineup.
In 1984 the huge success of The Cosby Show led to a renewed interest in sitcoms, while Family Ties and Cheers, both of which premiered in 1982 to mediocre ratings, saw their viewership increase from having Cosby as a lead-in. The network moved from third place to second place that year. It reached first place in the N
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